Performance and Character

Companies hire people to work and perform and hope that those employed will be of good character. Character checks are usually carried out by employers through obtaining of routine references. From this point on the real challenge starts. At the time of recruiting and selecting, enough emphasis is not given to character traits of the candidate.

Of these two variables, performance and character, there are plenty of examples in the corporate world where either one or the other have been more evident. “He is such a sincere and devoted lad, pity he can’t deliver the results we need. I wonder who hired him!” Says a disgruntled manager about one of his newly inherited subordinate, soon after taking charge of a department. Here we have the classic employee who is considered polite and trustworthy, but is quite a liability to the company.

While we would like to believe that such instances are rare, the opposite is true. This could be because of various reasons. For instance, poor hiring on account of political pressures; or nepotism; or ineffective staffing (‘right person for the right job’) due to favoritism; or simply because of an incompetent HR manager. Many public sector organizations and government departments suffer from this kind of malaise. I was once describing the nature of our work to a federal minister as that of improving efficiency and effectiveness in organizations. On hearing this he laughed aloud, and said, “People like you are bad for us. We create inefficiencies to provide jobs!”

The flip side is very prevalent too. Example of a second in command of a commercial bank comes to my mind. What he said in a meeting with a colleague was pretty alarming. “It’s been two months since I took charge of the operations of this bank and I am still not clear about the figures being presented to me. An asset could so easily be a loss! Its hard to know who to believe. They are all so damned articulate and intelligent that facts get distorted by their slick presentations.” Here we have slick communicators and spin doctors who use their gift of the gab to either make an impression, get out of trouble or present data in a way that conveys a rosy picture of a bad situation. Such people are usually competent in their field and possess the street-smarts to secure business. They are great at misleading people within their business or have a knack of ruling over them through fear.

This category of people, which is high in competence but low in sincerity may perform well in the short term, but end up damaging the long term viability of their company. Companies are at times guilty of retaining managers on the basis of their performance, while aspects of character and integrity are conveniently overlooked.

High performers are valued by companies as they positively impact the top-line and bottom-line within months. One takes principle orientation lightly at his own peril. Glaring examples of major corporate failures serve to enlighten us of the value of integrity. Enron, Worldcom, Anderson Consulting and Baring Brothers are just a few well publicized cases where intelligence and greed of a few led to the eventual demise of the entities they led. In Pakistan we saw corporate scandals like Coop banks and Taj Company to name just a few.

The point is that integrity in people leads to superior business performance. The burden of regulation, checks and balances, simply add to bureaucratic delays and increase cost of supervision to a level that makes a company uncompetitive in terms of quality, price and speed.

How the nature of international travel for Pakistanis has changed in recent years illustrates the point I am making. Back in the 60s and 70s going abroad was a pleasant experience, with exchange control regulation being the main source of frustration. Obtaining visas, checking-in and boarding planes without suffering the ritual of intense security screening, clearing immigration – all this was quick and easy.

Today, obtaining a visa is an extremely slow and demeaning process. Just talk to anyone who has tried to apply for a US visa lately. Extra check and scrutiny at embassies have been necessitated due to several cases of false claims and bogus documents being presented by our nationals.

As a result of the conduct of some crooks, Pakistanis in general have lost credibility in the eyes of the international community. Consequently genuine people suffer delays of all sorts while transacting international business.

ISO 9000 certification was one way of ensuring that companies would ‘do what they say’ and ‘say what they do’. Sadly, only a few companies that have obtained such certification truly practice the spirit behind ISO. Others simply window-dress and prepare just in time for annual audits to retain the certificate.

I have known a retired captain of 747s who served PIA for a number of years. He was director Flight Operations when he left PIA to join Singapore Airlines in the 70s and flew their Jumbos, finally retiring to come back home. He is, therefore, very familiar with the workings of both the airlines. I asked him to describe the difference between both the airlines, explaining why Singapore Airlines was one of the world’s leading carriers today. His answer was simple. He said that they had twice the fleet of aircraft and half the number employees compared to PIA. And while their manuals were very similar in content to ours, they lived by the creed; whereas PIA personnel mostly paid lip service to guidelines. People in Singapore Airlines were held accountable for their misdeeds. In PIA this rarely happened. People at Singapore Airlines were evidently high on both performance and character, while in PIA it was not so.

Quality of people is not an ‘either/or’ proposition – we need both performance and character in each individual for the company to produce admirable performance on a sustainable long-term basis. Achieving desired results is just as important as HOW it is arrived at.



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